There is no grief like the grief that does not speak. --H.W. Longfellow
I was less than 10 years old when the Chasnala mining disaster happened and a couple of my father's friends died, apart from nearly 400 others. It was the first time I witnessed grief. In the six months it took for the company to declare that Mr. B was one of those whose bodies could not be identified, we saw Mrs. B, in her mid-20s then and with one toddler and a baby, go grey. Her hair spoke volumes even though she never could give her sorrow words. We never even saw her cry. She just sat in her garden in the evenings, softly talking to everyone, looking as though a huge part of her had been misplaced. She staunchly refused to be photographed, but even in those days when we did not even know what paparazzi meant, there were a couple of sly journalists who published her picture in the front pages of newspapers.
A little more than a month later, my grandfather died. He was 83, but my grandmother beat her chest and cried and cried, almost as though it were a ritual to perform, expected of her. Relatives and neighbours would visit their suburban home and the groundswell of crying, the keening would begin all over again. He had a full life, my granddad, a successful doctor, all children married and settled. The younger grandchildren, including me, would play in secluded corners of the house, stifling our giggles so we wouldn't be scolded for insensitivity.
"There seems to be, for some people, only one acceptable template for grief."
Several years later, my own brother died in a freak drowning accident when he was in medical college. He and another friend just waded into the sea to fetch a Frisbee and within seconds, both disappeared. They were found at different times later. That dark September night we were told there was "an accident" and that they were being taken to the medical college (later, the post-mortem report revealed the cause of death as "dry drowning", essentially heart failure). "He is in the ICU. We will go and see him in the morning," my father said. He thrashed around and banged and bloodied his head with a steel ashtray, but not once did he say he wanted to go to the hospital to see his son. The car was right there, he could have driven it himself, but he didn't. None of us did.
For years and years after, the very air in our house changed. The smell of loss and decay hung in our rooms. Leave alone my parents, even I carry around my grief like a big fat brick in my pocket. It makes walking a little difficult, but the brick is well-hidden. We have our own individual bricks that have become an indispensible part of our beings. These bricks drag us down even as we try to claw our way to the surface. Yet, we are selfish about it, we don't want to share the burden with anyone. Besides, we realised long ago that other people can only deal with your grief up to a point, and then it becomes tedious for them.
Yet there seems to be, for some people, only one acceptable template for grief. Take for example, reputed columnist and author Shobhaa De's excoriation of the Talwars (currently in prison for the murder of their daughter Aarushi and their domestic help Hemraj) in her blog: "Grieving parents behave in a different manner. They are broken in spirit and rendered almost incoherent with grief at the loss of a loved one. An only child, at that. Not these two, though. Sorry if this sounds like pop psychology gone wrong, but the conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs. Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded to viewers. It conveys just one thing: catch us if you can."
"If your world collapses around you, you are supposed to lie down in a heap and wait for arms to pick you up, you are not allowed to dust yourself and get up without help."
This columnist may have felt "vindicated" by the sentencing of the Talwars, but the fact is that the case had loopholes that cannot be overlooked. Avirook Sen's new book Aarushi challenges many of the unfair assumptions made about the dentist couple. The trial in the courtroom was riddled with inconsistencies and perhaps even falsehoods, and the parallel trial by media was just as bad, with salacious speculations about the family being passed off as fact. "Did she come across a dark and dirty family secret? Did she become an 'inconvenience' to her parents?" People -- and they are legion, even if we exclude this scribe and her tribe -- did not consider that grief has more than one face, and that assumptions without evidence and investigative integrity are a recipe for a miscarriage of justice. With Sen's book, these issues are finally being addressed.
I am still surprised by the number of people who so readily latched on to the stereotype of a morally corrupt elitist couple killing their daughter in collusion with each other and then dressing the scene to hide their deed. The same people never once thought of how genuinely unnatural it was for parents to smile and gift their child a birthday present before killing her. The story may have played out differently in columns and blog posts had the Talwars made an exhibition of their grief.
But they did not act like grieving parents are supposed to -- beating their chest, rudaali style and wailing for the TV cameras. Their grief was judged inadequate. Nupur Talwar did not behave like Nirupa Roy in countless Hindi movies. She ate in jail, she showed an "unnatural" loyalty towards her husband. If your world collapses around you, you are supposed to lie down in a heap and wait for arms to pick you up, you are not allowed to dust yourself and get up without help. When I told my mother, that fateful morning, that her son was dead, she fell in a heap, as though she imploded. She hit her head as she fell, but I just walked by her and went to drink some water, leaving her lying there for the relatives to pick up. I, too, had just had the most life-altering moment and it changed me like nothing else has, ever. Was I unnatural? Maybe.
"We can't tolerate that this couple is gathering the miserable remnants of their now meaningless life, gritting their teeth and not letting the hurt and vulnerability show."
My head burning, feeling spaced out, I went to get myself some water. I did not cry, I just quickly collected all pictures of my brother we had anywhere and locked them in the almirah and kept the keys with me. Does that mean I loved my brother less? I did not want anyone blowing up his pictures and gilt-framing them. I yearned for the tenderness of my mother's arms to hold me, yearned to weep, face hidden in her lap, but we were too busy saving each other more pain and we quickly got on to pretending we were capable of dealing with it and carrying on. My older brother had come down from the US, so my mother started cooking for him, very soon. We were all latching ourselves on to imaginary hooks from which we would never let ourselves off. My father went to work from the seventh day. People at work were uncomfortable having him around so soon, but that never deterred him.
When I see Nupur Talwar's face and the steely determination in it, I know where that comes from. From a need to act normal when nothing around is. But the camera of the voyeuristic media can only see the apparent hardness of her face. She does not fit the picture of the soft, pliant, helpless mother we would all like her to be. She is being called hard, more determined than a bereaved mother should be. We expect them to show deep grief, not bother about the little things that help one get through the day.
Because they are not supposed to get through the day. Their life is supposed to stop. It has stopped, but we are not willing to see that. We can't tolerate that this couple is gathering the miserable remnants of their now meaningless life, gritting their teeth and not letting the hurt and vulnerability show. Their lives have been thrown asunder in the most heart-wrenching manner possible, and yet across many drawing rooms of the country and outside, there are people nodding their heads and decrying their supposed vileness, wanting in some perverse fashion, to see them broken.
Someday, hopefully soon, the truth will out. Till then, we should let them be. They have nothing else to lose save their dignity. Is that so much to ask?